My reflection stared back at me, bland and docile, with no hint of the restlessness that rushed through my veins. Perfect mask painted on by practiced hands. I blinked heavy black lashes over my pale gray eyes and smoothed the corn silk hair back from my peaches and cream skin.
Father called me his doll. Until I turned fourteen, my body changed, and he averted his eyes from me.
Mother taught me how to look the part. Then she taught me how to hide away my body from wandering eyes.
Some things would never change.
I swallowed my riotous feelings, plastered on my signature sweet smile, and waved goodbye to the girl in the mirror. To the image that was me but not me.
I pretended I wasn’t exhausted.
As I descended the stairs, I mentally went over my schedule for the day, searching for the holes that would allow me to slip away. Mother planned my days, filling them with what she deemed appropriate, and helping me protect my reputation so that nothing came back to my father.
I would go to the library before lunch, as I always did, and I wasn’t willing to give up my time there. Maybe I could walk behind the Community Center after lunch, along the overgrown unused path that led to the river. I could do it if I was careful enough not to snare my skirt. And careful not to look fatigued when I returned home.
“Are you listening to me, Olivia?” My mother’s stern voice pulled me from my thoughts.
A warming blush flooded my cheeks at being caught thinking through my plans to lie and sneak rather than paying attention. No matter how I tried to be the good girl, my tendency to seek escape reared up and took over. My mother didn’t deserve my deception, but I couldn’t put her at risk by involving her in my plans.
“I’m sorry.” I widened my smile and stood perfectly still. “My mind was on my lunch plans.”
“Oh.” She looked me over with scrutiny until her face cleared and she moved on. “Of course, dear. I asked if Matthew would be joining us for dinner this evening.”
“Yes, Mother.” I tipped my head down slightly, like I was overcome with thoughts of love toward my fiancé. In reality, I needed a second to grind my teeth together before fixing my smile.
Matthew Covington, only son of Senator Charles Covington, the answer to securing my future, and the antidote to my desire to destroy my reputation, according to my father. I had only agreed to their plan because living the lie hurt less than facing the truth of my life. The pain I’d caused them in the past swept under a rug and covered with a shiny new plan in the form of moving to a new town, proving ourselves worthy, then hitching their daughter to the best horse in town. If Matthew was the horse, and if our marriage got my father in his father’s good graces. There was nothing my father wanted more in life than to regularly meet the senator at the country club for golf. In other words, my future was traded for my father to secure his place in known association with a powerful man.
“Good.” She nodded, lost in thoughts likely about cooking dinner. “Good.”
I finally broke my statue pose and moved into the kitchen to claim my mug and heat water for tea. She didn’t allow me to drink coffee, unless I was out with my girlfriends at Darlene’s. Only as a special treat.
I was twenty-four years old, and I followed my parents’ rules as if I was a child. Then I would marry Matthew, move in with him, and bow to his commands. He’d already mentioned I would no longer need to meet with my unmarried friends for coffee. Instead, I was to meet with the other wives and grow up already. I’d convince him to let me keep attending the knitting group if nothing else.
My stomach hurt, burning with regrets from my past and apprehension of my future.
“Your hands are shaking, Olivia.” My mother took my mug and poured the water over my Earl Grey tea bag. “Honestly, you should know to eat first thing by now. With your low blood sugar, you can’t dawdle in your room until you come downstairs shaking.”
She shooed me to the table and motioned for me to sit down while she pulled eggs from the refrigerator. Taking care of me was my mother’s biggest role in life, and the thing she seemed to cling to most, especially after we started over in Fox River.
My low blood sugar couldn’t be blamed for my trembling fingers this morning. No, that came from thoughts of my future. I shivered while my mother’s back was turned, fighting the near constant ache in my abdomen.
Matthew never asked me out directly; never courted me. He never fulfilled my imaginings of meeting the man I’d marry. I would wonder until the day I died what deal my father brokered to secure the arrangement.
I wrapped my cold hands around the hot mug and breathed in the spicy steam of the tea. Matthew wished to own me, to parade me around on his arm, and knew me only well enough to know I wouldn’t cause him any trouble. Of course, he didn’t know me ten years ago, and if he had, he wouldn’t be so sure of me.
Some people become dependent on praise; on pleasing other people. I wanted so badly to make my parents happy and proud of me. But at some point, I realized I couldn’t. And if I couldn’t make them love me by being perfect, then what was the point?
If I could go back and deliver a message to myself as a little girl, it would say there is no such thing as perfection. Maybe then I wouldn’t have spent my early years striving so hard for something that didn’t exist. I wouldn’t have cracked, obliterating their ideas of perfection, and throwing our lives into a tailspin. There would be no need for me to pay for my sins by upholding their version of a new perfect.
All I wanted was to lie in the grass, not worried about getting dirty. To laugh out loud, not concerned with being lady-like. To have someone look at me and see past the illusion of Olivia Grace Hamilton.
My life revolved around a carefully planned schedule. One that Mother devised to keep me seen in town doing charity work and making the right friends. She monitored my activities and feared day in and day out I’d slip and fall to the same fate from ten years ago. How long would I atone for my mistakes? I tried not to overthink it all because it would drive me mad.
With a bag of healthy snacks and a stack of books to return, I drove to the Fox River Library in the heart of downtown. The quaint beauty of the community never ceased to bring a smile to my mouth. My friend Penny’s boyfriend, Dominic MacKenna, was to thank for arranging the upcoming Polar Cone Festival, the equally absurd Polar Plunge into Early Creek, as well as the pansies lining every street and in prolific hanging baskets. He did nothing short of magic turning a dreary end of January into something lovely. I had already collected my supplies for the Leap Year Knit-a-Thon raising money for a new park gazebo, or a new city garden, or some such Good Thing for Fox River.
Once ensconced in the warmth of the library, I shed my coat, hat, and scarf, leaving them hanging near the entrance alongside a collection of other winter gear. I waved to Matilda Berry, the head librarian, as I approached the counter and emptied my bag of books.
“You read these in record time, Miss Olivia.”
The smile I had for Mrs. Berry was genuine, one of admiration and trust, knowing she would like me for me. I’d quickly found refuge in the library after we moved to Fox River and immediately formed a kinship with the librarian. Since then I’d been coming in several days a week - sometimes to sit with the books, sometimes to pick new reads, and sometimes to escape my regularly programmed life.
“This one was my favorite.” I placed my palm flat on the cover of a semi-new fantasy title. “I think I’ll visit the fantasy aisles today.”
“You know the way.” She smiled her familiar warm smile at me and didn’t bother pointing me in the right direction.
I had memorized the library many years prior and could find a book as easily as Mrs. Berry. In fact, she had offered me a job several times, wanting me to use my powers for good. One day maybe I’d say yes, but I couldn’t see past the strict schedule from my mother or the future obligations of being a wife.
What would it be like to walk away from what they planned for me? To work in the library? To dye my hair or wear makeup for fun? To be myself without fear of disaster?
Fingers trailing along book spines, I took my time. My arms stacked with possibilities, I lowered to sit on the floor and explored the titles, sorting the keepers.
“You should start with A and work your way through alphabetically.”
“Hi, Penny Davies.” I looked up at my newest and closest friend.
We had met in the library a year ago and taken a liking to each other. She often came in on her lunch break and sometimes again after work. We just as often found each other in the quiet depths of the place we both held dearest.
“I did think of that,” I answered her original suggestion, “but I think I’ll start with these.”
Penny sat down, her floral dress puddling around her thick tights and knit leg warmers.
“You never read this one as a kid?” She picked up the one topping my pile of chosen copies.
“Oddly, no.” I shrugged, unsure how I had missed it in years prior.
“They have the rest of the series, too. You’ll love them.”
Penny settled in and we talked books. A common language that solidified our friendship from the beginning.
“I better get back to work.” Her face lit up, as she was happy to get back to her job.
“I have a late lunch with Mrs. Covington, so I’d better go too.”
It was possible I’d dawdled accidentally-on-purpose to delay the inevitable.
Mrs. Berry was the only other person I knew who loved her job. When I told her once I dreamed of living in the library, she didn’t laugh but said she’d often dreamt the same. She worked efficiently and kept up conversation at the same time.
“When’s the wedding, dear?”
“We haven’t picked a date yet, but we’re looking at September.” My face automatically slid into blissfully happy mode. It helped regulate my voice to sound happy or excited or whatever it was I should be feeling.
The last hour or more without faking a smile had been nice and had slipped by without my notice. Now my cheeks ached from the strain and reminded me of the role I played. One I didn’t remember signing up for, but felt oddly committed to continuing.
“September is lovely.” She tipped her head to the side and pursed her lips. “I would have thought you’d want a spring wedding.”
My face flushed. Darn pale skin always a dead giveaway. I loved spring best of all, the riot of new bright growth, the reminder of color after a bleak winter.
“You gush most about the spring. Always coming in telling me how beautiful everything is.” With a knowing smile on her lips, she pushed the stack of books in my direction, with a receipt tucked in the top cover. “I’m sure it will be lovely no matter the time of year.”
“Thank you.” I nodded at her, trying to assure her I appreciated the advice. I did, of course, only I didn’t care when or where the wedding took place.
“Best get going, honey.”
I fingered the pearl buttons at my wrists; a nervous habit. Then I slipped back into my warm coat, pulling the hood down low, and tightening my scarf to ward against the sharp wind. I said a silent goodbye to the peace and sanctuary of the library as I walked swiftly down the street.